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Retro Baltimore: Central Avenue car barn, a relic of city’s cable car system, to get overhaul

The old Baltimore Traction Company Car Barn will soon undergo a $15 million renovation. "The project will rehabilitate the existing building into mixed commercial use, featuring retail, offices, and community programming," according to the Maryland Historical Trust.
The old Baltimore Traction Company Car Barn will soon undergo a $15 million renovation. "The project will rehabilitate the existing building into mixed commercial use, featuring retail, offices, and community programming," according to the Maryland Historical Trust. (Courtesy Maryland Historical Trust)

The building at 130 S. Central Ave. sits at a cross section of neighborhoods, a reminder of the now-extinct cable car system that once moved Baltimoreans around the city.

Soon, that 19th century brick building will undergo a $15 million renovation to house offices, retail space and community programming, according to the Maryland Department of Planning.

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The project, a collaboration between Cross Street Partners and Beatty Development, just received $3 million in tax credits from the state, bringing the structure a step closer to “being faithfully preserved,” a spokesman for Cross Street Partners wrote in an email. (The spokesman, vice president of development John Renner, otherwise provided scant details, citing the need for community input to shape the project’s future.)

Other city projects to receive state funding include an old pumping station that will become part of Baltimore Food Hub and a West Baltimore school that counts Thurgood Marshall among its alumni.

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The Central Avenue car barn’s renovation will bring to life an often forgotten chapter of Baltimore’s transportation history: its short-lived cable car system.

San Francisco is famous for its cable cars, which glide up and down the city’s hills, pulled by cables beneath the ground. But few people other than avid streetcar fans may realize that Charm City once possessed a similar system, which advocates deemed to be the way of the future. It must have seemed light-years ahead of earlier, horse-drawn trolleys.

The cable car system was the project of the Baltimore Traction Company, whose Druid Hill Avenue line was “the beginning of rapid transit in Baltimore,” according to an 1894 article in Scientific American. On its first day of service, May 23, 1891, an estimated 60,000 Baltimoreans each paid a nickel to ride from Druid Hill Park to Patterson Park.

Rapid transit — but not exactly fast. The trains traveled at about 11 mph.

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Baltimore's cable cars.
Baltimore's cable cars. (Baltimore Sun staff/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

The cable car system was powered by a series of huge steam engines located in powerhouses throughout the city, including one inside a refurbished church whose inner workings were described in great detail in the Scientific American article.

“The engine room is 79x58 feet, the tension room is 51x72 feet, the boiler is 41x104 feet, and the coal room is 41x47 feet. The machinery consists of two plain Corliss engines, 36x60 inches, built by the Corliss Steam Engine Company, of Providence, R.I., and driving gear for two ropes, built by the Robert Poole & Sons Company,” the article described at the time.

Another imposing Victorian structure on Druid Hill Avenue opened in 1891. That building contained enough space to store 38 cars and a coal bunker to power the steam engines. In its basement was “a series of vaults housing a spaghetti-like network of cable that powered the cars traveling rails embedded in city streets,” according to a 2005 article in The Sun. That year, the old building on Druid Hill Avenue, which had been in use as a storage facility, burned down in a fire. The Central Avenue facility, built in 1890 and 1891, contained a car barn in its southern half; the northern half acted as a powerhouse.

Another 19th century car barn and powerhouse on Charles Street was renovated in the late 1990s, having previously been home to the city’s Famous Ballroom. Modern audiences now know the building as home to The Charles Theatre. Construction crews discovered sections of steel rails, rail spikes and wooden ties, according to The Sun archives. The old rails made for some construction headaches when it came time to install the movie seats.

Soon, the car barn and powerhouse on Central Avenue, too, will get a new lease on life and workers there too may encounter relics from the city’s transportation past.

Baltimore’s cable car system was replaced by an all-electric streetcar system in 1896.

Judging from The Sun archives, few people missed the old system. A 1909 article labeled it a “costly experiment that ended in failure.”

Eventually, electric streetcars, too, died off. The last streetcar line, the No. 8, was converted to an all-bus route in 1963, which marked the end of widespread streetcar service in the city.

Streetcars would make a comeback in the 1990s with the arrival of the Light Rail, which today travels as far south as BWI Marshall Airport and as far north as Baltimore County’s Hunt Valley neighborhood.

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